Environmentalist dreams of New York rooftop farms

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York is better known for tall buildings and crowded streets than farms but a group of environmentalists say Gotham’s rooftops could be used to grow enough vegetables to feed the entire city and reduce dependence on far-away farms.

New York Sun Works has opened an environmentally friendly Science Barge to prove its point. Moored on the Hudson River, it grows and harvests lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes in a greenhouse using rain and energy from solar panels and wind turbines and biofuels.

The nonprofit group says that if similar outfits, with hydroponic systems using water and no soil, were installed on the city’s 14,000 acres of unshaded rooftop, it could feed as many as 20 million people in New York City and the surrounding metropolitan area year round.

“If we planted those rooftops with hydroponic greenhouses ... we could grow comfortably more than enough fresh vegetables for the entire population of New York City,” said Ted Caplow, head of the group behind the project.

Cities such as Havana, Hanoi and Singapore produce much of their food, but New York ships in almost all its food.

Caplow, an environmental engineer uses the barge, which cost $250,000 to build, to show city kids how vegetables grow and to promote making New York more self-sufficient.

Growing local produce could cut carbon emissions, seen by scientists as a key cause of global warming, by reducing the need for trucks to deliver vegetables from long distances.

While many city residents have no access to rooftops, much less the permission to build farms on them, Caplow believes there could be possibilities for entrepreneurs or communities to use roofs of public buildings, or stores.

He envisions growers selling produce at farmers markets, to neighborhood groups or at city chain stores like Whole Foods.

In the three weeks since the project opened, Caplow said he has had inquiries from roughly a dozen groups looking to set up similar operations, with questions coming from people as far away as the Middle East and Uruguay.


Other interested groups include city schools looking to help teach horticulture and science and potentially provide food for the cafeteria.

Gioya Fennelly, a science teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt Intermediate School in Manhattan, said she is working on a plan to build a rooftop garden to help with classes.

“I’ve been toying with this for many years,” said Fennelly, who started a garden in the school grounds about 10 years ago but favors a rooftop greenhouse to avoid vandalism, improve hygiene conditions and to make winter garden classes possible.

New York has other similar horticulture projects. Brooklyn’s East New York Farms produces food in community gardens and young people sell the food locally. And volunteers in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn work at the nonprofit Added Value, which grows plants on a 3-acre (1.3-hectare) plot that was once a dilapidated playground.

But since ground-level space for community gardens is limited, Caplow favors use of the city’s unused rooftops, which have about 10 times more space than the total U.S. ground covered by greenhouses.

He also notes that greenhouses produce seven times more food than traditional farmland using four times less water.